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Film Review: “Feminist: Stories from Women’s Liberation”




It’s hard to present the history of a social movement without giving the impression that all the exciting fights have already been won and that taking action now is irrelevant. Sometimes the activists of the past suggest they knew more than they did at the time, and were unique in their ability to organize and take risks. All of this can make for boring documentaries and a pomposity that’s off-putting to anyone born after the action being described.

Somehow Feminist: Stories from Women’s Liberation 1963-1970, a new film by Jennifer Lee, avoids these fatal flaws. By including her own personal awakening to 1960s feminism through the making of the film, Lee opens a window onto a movement that feels almost as new and exuberant as that early movement did.

Conditions for women in 1963 were unimaginably strict and confining (Lee refers to sex-segregated want ads as emblematic of the period), and women from all backgrounds started rebelling in thoughtful, creative and often outrageous ways. The film lets you see early feminists in action at government hearings, beauty pageants, street demonstrations and consciousness-raising groups. The film admits that mistakes were made and not everything went smoothly. In other words, women were figuring it out as they went along (just like you can).

I have to admit that I may have liked this documentary so much because I am in it. I had the chance to be recognized for my participation and add my two cents to the story, describing the roots of my feminist organizing in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements.

As Betty Friedan says in the film’s closing moments, there are thousands of activists from those times whose stories are just waiting to be told by the present generation of female scholars — suggesting that the role of younger women, rather than being irrelevant to the cause, is critical in documenting, interpreting, preserving (and expanding) the accomplishments of 1960s feminism. Feminist was screened March 24 at the Los Angeles Women’s International Film Festival and is now making the rounds of festivals around the country. Keep your eyes open for its next appearance.

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